For as long as we can remember, media training included telling clients to “triage” media this way in a crisis:
• Do radio interviews first because they broadcast every hour.
• Next, talk to the TV reporters because they broadcast several times a day.
• Daily newspapers are next because they publish the following day.
• Finally, call the weeklies and business publications because they have the longest lead times.
We also recommended drafting communications for the company’s other critical stakeholders, telling some right away (e.g., neighbors who were evacuated because of a chemical spill) and telling as many as possible before they saw the evening news or read their morning paper. Those who wouldn’t have access to the local media were less urgent.
Today’s Instant Communications
Today, our advice has changed. In this 24/7 news environment, it’s not just the broadcasters who face urgent deadlines. Daily newspapers compete with TV news to get the story on their Web sites first, and weekly business papers compete to get breaking news into e-mail updates to readers. Newspapers no longer wait to publish until they get the full story – or even get comments from everyone involved. Their goal is to get the story posted on the web immediately, filling in the details later.
This means that company spokespersons no longer have an hour to respond to media inquiries. They have to respond immediately or risk being left out of the story.
When Someone Gets There First
We recently worked with a company whose CEO was arrested and charged with a felony. While the management team worked frantically to figure out how to respond, the local newspaper posted the story on its Web site and pushed it out to readers as an e-mail news alert. Reporters didn’t call the company for comment until about an hour after the news was posted on the Web, so many employees learned what had happened in the harsh words of the prosecutor without any comment from the company. Rumors spread quickly and employees were, not surprisingly, very concerned by the time their supervisors called them together to “break” the news.
Once that story was on the Web, everything the company did was reactive. They had lost the ability to tell the story directly – not just to employees, but also to investors, customers, vendors and elected officials.
In this new world of 24/7 news, the communication team may still be trying to get legal approval for its messages while major customers are already reading about the crisis on the Web. By the time the team figures out the logistics of contacting everyone, vendors, customers and local officials may already be calling staff to find out what’s going on.
A thorough crisis plan can save the day. Instead of starting from scratch, the team can hit the ground running.
Pre-Empting Leaks with Early Reports
Contrast this situation with another crisis we recently handled. This time, it involved a criminal investigation at an educational institution. We were called in the moment they knew there might be a problem, allowing us to work quickly to put everything in place. As a result, before the prosecutor’s office announced the indictment, the wheels were set in motion.
• We developed key messages and drafted a media statement and talking points, letters or e-mails for all critical audiences.
• Attorneys had time to approve all communications.
• We had time to anticipate a long list of tough questions we were likely to be asked by the media and prepare responses.
• We conducted media training for the spokesperson.
• Background information was compiled for reporters.
• We had a strategy in place to help the organization re-build its reputation after the crisis.
What a difference planning made! Faculty, staff and students heard the news directly from the president. And while the president spent her day talking to the media, others members of staff made phone calls and sent out e-mails to school officials, parents, major donors and the leadership of other schools in the area. Not only did they appreciate hearing from the school, but most of them expressed deep concern and support.
Though we couldn’t keep the story off the news and Web, crucial audiences heard the news directly from the school’s leadership, without being filtered through the media. As a result, most applauded the school’s proactive approach.
Often, when we’re called into crisis situations, clients focus exclusively on the media. This is understandable, because they’re usually first on the scene and typically the most demanding. But it’s a huge mistake to communicate exclusively through the media.
When the interviews are finally over and the TV trucks pull away, the communications team may look at each other with relief. But it’s really just beginning. How will employees feel watching the story unfold on the evening news? What will customers and investors think when they pull the story up on the Web? What will the bloggers say and will anyone defend you?
Preparing in Advance
Crises are very stressful. They can be emotional, sometimes devastating events. And they can happen at any time with little, if any, notice. In these days of instant news and instant messaging, seconds and minutes count. Yet, unless you’re an expert in crisis communications, you will find it difficult to think strategically when your heart is racing and the media is pounding on your door. Far better to think through the strategy in advance, before the wolves descend.
There are some excellent resources available to help organizations create a crisis plan. Several colleges and universities have posted their plans on the Web and these can serve as excellent guides. PRSA (www.prsa.org) also offers a number of helpful resources to members.
The best way to ensure your organization will respond quickly and effectively, preserving its good name when a crisis hits, is to have a thorough crisis plan.
This article was written by Barbara Paynter, counsel to Hennes Communications, and specializes in crisis communications, media training and litigation support. She is the immediate past president of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and has more than 25 years of experience in media and public relations. It is currently being featured in PR News' 2008 Crisis Management Guidebook. To order a copy, visit http://www.prnewsonline.com/store/12.html.